American Elections Through the Eyes of Foreign Correspondents

“I’m completely mystified,” says one Indian reporter.

Mike Blake / Reuters

They’ve chronicled the U.S. presidential election for months (years? eons?), criss-crossing the country and filing dispatches with headlines like “Why it takes only a broken taillight for America to erupt,” “Giant meteor or Trump vs Clinton? It’s a hard call for some US voters,” and “Donald Trump’s exploitation of Orlando benefits ISIS.” Now they’re preparing to cover one of America’s signature political spectacles: the nominating convention. And they’re uniquely positioned to provide some of the sharpest and most original analysis of the race.

Ahead of the Republican and Democratic conventions, I spoke with four foreign correspondents about how they’re making sense of the 2016 election and explaining the campaign to their audience. The Lebanese journalist Joyce Karam, who has covered U.S. politics since 2004 and serves as the Washington bureau chief for the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, expressed concern about her safety—even about openly speaking Arabic—at the GOP convention in Cleveland, given Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims. The German journalist Matthias Kolb, who’s covering his second U.S. presidential contest for the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s website, argued that America isn’t as divided as it seems. Like most of the reporters I spoke with, the Australian journalist Zoe Daniel, who’s covering her first U.S. election for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, said she has struggled to understand America’s inaction on gun violence. I asked the Indian journalist Chidanand Rajghatta, a Times of India correspondent who’s been attending conventions since 1996, about his strangest experience so far on the campaign trail. He said simply: “Every time Mr. Trump opens his mouth.”

I posed the same series of questions to each correspondent. An edited and condensed transcript of their answers follows.

You have just a minute to explain what this year’s election is about to someone back home. What do you say?

Chidanand Rajghatta (Times of India): This is going to be history regardless of which way the results pan out. This country is either going to elect a woman or it’s going to elect a businessman with absolutely no executive experience in politics. But it’s also a surreal election because you’re seeing a guy who has literally hijacked a political party of great vintage and legacy, and nobody has been able to stop him. And he’s been able to hijack it with a bunch of randomly constructed tweets and sentences with absolutely no policy depth at all. I find that incredible in a country where elections have always involved a very in-depth discussion of policy. Most of his speeches are short, random, off-the-cuff sentences, incomplete and often incoherent. I’m completely mystified.

Zoe Daniel (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): [It’s about] explaining anti-establishment sentiments. We’ve got this anti-politician in Donald Trump, the establishment candidate in Hillary Clinton, and also Bernie Sanders attracting support from voters who are looking for something different. [These sentiments have] something to do with [voters’] sense of lack of control, their sense that politicians do not work for them, their sense that they are cut out of political decision-making.

Matthias Kolb (Süddeutsche Zeitung): Obama tried to change the country in a remarkable way—to make it more socially just, [with] Obamacare and all these things. Now the American electorate has to decide whether they want to stick on the Obama path of more government or roll back some of the things he has done.

Joyce Karam (Al-Hayat): In both parties, there is an exhaustion with the status quo, with the familiar names. Donald Trump capitalized on a wave of anger inside the Republican Party, though we never expected it. When he first announced [his candidacy], we put the story on page eight, we buried it. It was, like, 300 words. One of my editors said this is a TV star, [he’s] clownish, this is not serious.

How do you explain Donald Trump?

Chidanand Rajghatta (Times of India): I’ve been saying that this is an outcome of the frustration many Americans feel. The New York Times [recently] had a story about white alienation, and that is a core of Trump’s support. We can also call them the American Brexit voters. This is a constituency which feels marginalized, which has seen this country become more multicultural, multiracial, [and which has lost] economic opportunities to [an immigrant] force which is hungrier than they are, willing to work harder and work at probably lower wages than they are.

Zoe Daniel (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): [As in] most places outside America, Australians are thinking, “What on earth is going on there? How could this reality television star, [this] brash businessman be in a position to be president of the United States?” But at the same time, I think they also understand that some of what he says resonates with people—that a lot of people, even Australians, like his brashness, like the fact that he says what he thinks, that he doesn’t back [away] even from his most controversial opinions because he’s told to.

Matthias Kolb (Süddeutsche Zeitung): I spent a couple of days up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with a group of Trump supporters and [they told me], “You don’t have to worry about the big guy, but who cares for the people like me—people around here who get up every day and work hard?” They feel Trump is the guy who will work for them. When you watch [the election] from another continent, you see clips of Trump saying weird things, being so outlandish. What I always try to stress is [that] he [also] talks about things that are true: There’s too much influence of money in politics, rich guys like him can influence the political system. [When I] go to Trump events, there’s a wave of optimism in the crowds. They really believe in their candidate—that he can change things for the good.

Joyce Karam (Al-Hayat): This is not easy. To be honest with you, we have very few positive headlines on Donald Trump. The ban on Muslims, it became the ban on immigrants from Muslim countries, and now it’s a ban on people coming from terrorist nations—I don’t know what that means. This in many ways proves the other side’s worst fears about the United States. When you travel to the region, and you hear extremists in the region saying, “America hates us, hates Muslims,” and you try to explain [that this isn’t the case], this is now overshadowed by the Trump rhetoric. People [are] questioning, “Will we be banned if this guy becomes president? Where is this anger coming from?”

Many Arabs, me included, look up to the U.S. I came here, I studied here. People watch shows like The Good Wife, the Kardashians are popular. So to boil down the Arab street to the debate about ISIS and terrorism does not do justice to our audiences. And Mr. Trump should know because he has worked with these people more than other candidates. This is a guy who had a lot of friendships with the business elite in Gulf countries. Before this race, people knew him as a successful celebrity who has great projects—he has a golf course in the U.A.E., he has a hotel in Istanbul.

[All this] makes me a little bit worried about [attending the Republican] convention. Should I be speaking Arabic out loud? I’ve covered three conventions before, I’m coming from Lebanon also, we’ve been through [a] civil war. It never struck me [that] I should be worried about my safety. But [the convention in] Cleveland, I don’t know. You saw what happened with the Emirati who was coming to Ohio, who got arrested by the police because he was wearing his garb. I’m definitely not going to go with Lebanese national garb or whatever. But the safety issue, in this particular instance, it’s bigger than I anticipated.

How do you explain Hillary Clinton?

Chidanand Rajghatta (Times of India): Look, she’s a very accomplished woman. As first lady, she made the first visit to India, long before the Clinton administration caught onto it. And that helped propel the relationship forward to a degree after many years of frosty ties. There’s a high degree of awareness in India about Hillary Clinton, and I suspect that readers empathize with her. There’s not a whole lot of empathy about the email business, or Benghazi, because in India the threshold for political mistakes is fairly high. Our own guys make a lot of mistakes.

Zoe Daniel (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): One thing we’re striving to explain to the audience is why she’s not trusted by a lot of people. There’s a general understanding in our audience that she’s your classic, establishment candidate—that she’s a political construct, if you like. But at the same time, our audience innately trusts her because she’s been present for them for so long. That’s quite different [from] how a lot of Americans see her because they focus more specifically on her actions.

Matthias Kolb (Süddeutsche Zeitung): It’s important to stress how unpopular she is among a lot of American people, because Hillary Clinton is pretty popular in Germany. People think she’s a hard-working politician, she’s smart, she’s a woman—we’ve had a [female] chancellor for 10 years. The Democrats are the only [U.S. political] party Germans can support [based on] what we want our government to do. [I] try to explain the controversy about the email server, the old scandals, her flip-flops.

But I think the most interesting story on the Democratic side was more: How can an old, grumpy grandfather be so successful and attractive especially [to] young voters? That was a good way to explain to German readers how different the university system is [in America]—[how] young people can pile up tens of thousands [of dollars] in debt just to get a college degree.

Joyce Karam (Al-Hayat): She’s a very familiar name in the region. You’re talking about a region of dynasty, where last names do matter. The conventional wisdom [in the region] early on was that the race would be Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush, because of the last names. In the shadow of Trump’s ban on Muslims, Hillary Clinton, despite her vote for the war in Iraq, [has the] advantage in the Middle East.

[There’s also been] a lot of excitement among some Arabs with Bernie Sanders’s candidacy. That was very interesting to watch because he is the first Jewish candidate [to go so] far [in a U.S. election]. I think [it was about his] leftist appeal, [his] challenging the status quo, but in a way that is anti-war, [his] more neutral approach to Israel and Palestine. That tells you again that the Arab audience is not really that different [from Americans].

What’s the hardest thing for your audience to understand about the race?

Chidanand Rajghatta (Times of India): The thing I have to explain every election and explain at great length and repeatedly is the electoral-college system, and the fact that it’s possible to win the popular vote and still lose the election. And here is a man, [Trump], who has alienated Mexicans, alienated blacks, alienated immigrants, alienated women, alienated young people. Who does that leave now? And after all this alienation, how does one account for polls which show either a tie or a one- or two-point [difference with Clinton]?

Zoe Daniel (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): Why, when [Trump] says something that’s particularly inflammatory, why when he’s being so heavily criticized by people in the political sphere, does that not result in him becoming less popular? There are things he’s done and said that would kill the campaign of any other political candidate in history.

Matthias Kolb (Süddeutsche Zeitung): The vast majority of Germans find it very, very hard to understand [how] someone like Donald Trump can really be elected. In German politics, we don’t have that kind of political entrepreneur—we don’t have businessmen who enter politics. You work your way up, over decades, from the city level to the Bundestag, then you’re a minister, you end up running for the chancellorship.

What depresses a lot of German readers is the gun issue, the shootings. It’s very hard for Germans to understand that the country is so incapable of finding a solution to solve this problem, or at least to reduce the problem.

Joyce Karam (Al-Hayat): They’re mostly confused about how popular Trump’s ban on Muslims is within the Republican Party. You look at the polls during the primaries, [and] a majority [of Republicans] in most states support this ban. The Arab audience has not grasped fully the amount of fear and anger that has been building up, rightly or wrongly—I would say definitely wrongly—against Muslims, against Arabs. It’s not just Donald Trump. It’s a state of fear, of anger, generated against a region after 9/11, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria. That’s going to be a challenge that, Trump win or lose, is going to continue.

What do you personally find most confusing about the election?

Chidanand Rajghatta (Times of India): Not much. I’ve been here long enough.

Zoe Daniel (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): In terms of policy, guns is it, absolutely, in huge black letters. No one in Australia understands why Americans and American politicians cannot improve gun control in order to reduce gun violence.

I think I now understand why it’s so difficult to change—the historical nature of people always being able to have a gun and the right to having a gun. But, more than that, the sense that has developed that for your personal protection, you need to have a gun. So every time there is another violent incident, it encourages more people to have a gun or to feel like they do not want to give up their gun. That’s the complete antithesis of the Australian situation. When our worst [gun-related] massacre happened 20 years ago, the result was everyone decided people shouldn’t have guns. There was a gun buyback, which vastly reduced the number of guns in the country.

Matthias Kolb (Süddeutsche Zeitung): That it’s so hard for well-meaning people, from the conservative or progressive sides, to find common ground, or just to listen to the other side.

Joyce Karam (Al-Hayat): The gun issue I still have trouble understanding. I know there’s talk about the Second Amendment, but I always thought that when terrorism gets interjected with gun violence, that would make a strong case for something to be done. And I thought after [the terrorist attack in] San Bernardino and [the terrorist attack involving] Omar Mateen in Orlando, that this would change. But I was wrong.

What issues does your audience care most about?

Chidanand Rajghatta (Times of India): Immigration is a big issue in India, not just permanent immigration but even travel-related visa issues. [That includes] the proposed ban on Muslims, which Mr. Trump makes sporadically and inconsistently, because India has a 15-percent Muslim population.

Zoe Daniel (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): The reason people are interested in American politics partly is because America is such a close ally of Australia, particularly on defense. So if America goes to war, Australia goes to war. [For] those Australians who have serious concerns about Donald Trump being president, partly those concerns start there. They’re concerned about whether he is properly equipped to make those sorts of decisions, and they’re aware that Australia may get involved in any potential conflicts that result.

Matthias Kolb (Süddeutsche Zeitung): What’s striking or surprising to a lot of German readers is the level of inequality that is acceptable in [America]. People are interested and sometimes shocked to see how hard life is for a lot of people in this country.

Joyce Karam (Al-Hayat): Trump. The story of this election: It’s Trump the phenomenon.

Do you see parallels between the U.S. campaign and politics in your country or a country you’ve covered in the past?

Chidanand Rajghatta (Times of India): In the U.S., both political parties are very well-organized, which everyone believes is necessary to win the election. I actually wrote about this: There’s only one instance I know in India, an election I covered, of somebody who won an election without much of an organization. If Trump is going to win, something like that has to happen. This is a guy named N.T. Rama Rao, a movie star. He had a party named Telugu Desam in [the Indian state of] Andhra Pradesh. He campaigned with a single vehicle—he had one converted truck. And he drove something like 50,000 to 80,000 kilometers around the state making speeches. In a year, he became the chief minister of the state simply on the strength of his individual charisma. This is like Trump going around in his plane across America making speeches and winning the election.

[NTR’s] was a whimsical rule, because when a demagogue, which is what NTR was and which is what Trump is, wins on the basis of populist passion, without an organizational structure and without policies in place, everything becomes very random. You deliver some promises, you don’t deliver others.

Zoe Daniel (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): Having covered a number of elections internationally, both in Africa and Southeast Asia, [I’ve found] that [as] the internet generation we are now, people have vastly more access to information than they had previously, which informs or shapes their decision-making, but it also compounds economic divisions between people. The “haves” and “have-nots” can see very clearly—particularly if you’re in the “have-not” camp—what they’re missing. And that tends to feed anger at politicians and political systems.

Matthias Kolb (Süddeutsche Zeitung): No. American politics is so different from European politics.

Joyce Karam (Al-Hayat): Yes, and that’s a big surprise to me—that I would start seeing parallels between a stagnated, toxic political climate in Lebanon and what’s happening in the United States. I come from a Christian background, and many of the Christian parties during [Lebanon’s civil] war had very anti-Muslim rhetoric. Obviously [America is] not on the verge of a civil war. But you see this talk [from Trump] and you think, “Wow this is actually similar to how Muslims were stereotyped in Lebanon, and our own dark history.” Another parallel [is] the parliament in Lebanon is very inactive, they hardly open. You look at the U.S. internally, you would think: This is the superpower. This is a vibrant democracy and this [country] should have an active, productive political body. But [I] look at Congress and flashbacks from Lebanon come to me.

What are the biggest differences between U.S. elections and those back home?

Chidanand Rajghatta (Times of India): I’ve always believed that these are two entirely different electoral systems and two very different kinds of campaigning styles. In India [an election is] massive, it’s vibrant, it’s colorful, it’s loud, there’s a lot of heat and dust and rhetoric. Literally. And then I came to the U.S. [in 1994] and for the longest time, at least the first few elections, I found it very anodyne. It’s a mostly made-for-television spectacle. You go to a public meeting and it’s mostly a partisan crowd, it’s supporters of the candidate. The Obama election in 2008 was the first one where I really saw mass public participation on a scale comparable to India. There were meetings with tens of thousands of people. Increasingly I’ve seen the U.S. campaign trails get more animated, more heated.

Zoe Daniel (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): We don’t have a president, we have a prime minister. We don’t have primaries or caucuses. People are nominated as candidates and the public votes. Also, it’s a two-party system, but we have compulsory voting. That makes a huge difference because here you have candidates who not only have to attract people to vote for them, but also attract people to vote at all. Voter participation is a huge factor for someone like Hillary Clinton, [as] she tries to drag Bernie Sanders’s supporters across [to her side]. Australia’s just had an election where the election campaign was two months, which is extremely long by Australian standards. Whereas in the U.S. it goes for years.

Matthias Kolb (Süddeutsche Zeitung): The German campaign season is between five and eight weeks. We usually have, like, two debates, maybe one or two town halls for the leading candidates. It’s much shorter, more boring, more serious. We have a parliamentary system, we always have a coalition [government], the parties always have to work together. Compromise is not a dirty word in German politics.

In American politics, because of the two-party system, there’s always much more at stake [in elections]. In German politics, we have five parties who all agree that we should be in the European Union, that we should be in NATO, that we should stick with the euro, that we don’t want to abolish universal health care. The common ground in German politics is much, much wider than it is here.

Joyce Karam (Al-Hayat): I mean, they are very different. [The U.S.] is a democracy. This is a transparent, fair election. If this race was taking place in Lebanon, you’d have seen electricity go off in Tripoli, some establishment candidate would be the nominee with 99 percent of the vote. There is no way to compare. And I think this is the hard part for some in the Arab world to understand—that, actually, Trump [has] won squarely and fairly.

What’s been your strangest experience on the campaign trail so far?

Chidanand Rajghatta (Times of India): Every time Mr. Trump opens his mouth.

Zoe Daniel (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): The political rallies—the differences between them. You go into a Bernie Sanders rally and there tends to be thousands of people. It’s really disorganized. As a journalist, you can pretty much do whatever you want. Bernie will get up and talk for an hour and a half, giving his stump speech every time, and [his] supporters are just so completely in love with him. Then you go to a Trump event and you’re completely over-managed as a journalist. You’re corralled into a tiny area with a rope around you. The camera operators—to get in and out they might have to crawl along the ground like a caterpillar and climb through tripod legs. And if you dare to exit that corral, you have security pounce on you immediately. Then if you go to a Hillary Clinton event, it’s [a] really folksy style in a basketball stadium. It tends to be full of middle-aged people, some people come along with their kids, and the crowds tend to be a lot smaller.

Matthias Kolb (Süddeutsche Zeitung): I was in New Hampshire in early February and Trump did [a] very rare town-hall event. I entered as a normal visitor because usually we don’t get credentials as foreign press [from] the Trump campaign. [It was] the first time that [Trump] said outlandish things about Germany—that Germany is on the brink of a revolution, [that] thousands and thousands of people are leaving the country because of the refugee crisis. Because it was an intimate setting, it hit me hard that he just says these things and no one is there to challenge him. I get asked a lot, especially [by] Republican voters, “How’s the situation in Germany? Is your country on the brink of falling apart?” I explain [that] everything is still going pretty well in Germany. The buses are running. Everything is fine.

Joyce Karam (Al-Hayat): The most surreal moment was when [on Twitter] I quoted something anti-Semitic said by a Trump supporter and then I started being attacked with anti-Semitic stuff, and then I [found myself] defending not just the Jewish people, but diversity, [to an] American. Grasping the anti-Semitic rhetoric coming from some Trump supporters is really shocking to me. On the campaign trail, [it’s different]. You talk to people who are supporting him and there are real economic issues [behind their support]. The personal interaction has been much better.

What’s been your most memorable or inspiring experience?

Chidanand Rajghatta (Times of India): I’ve always believed that U.S. election campaigns are, at the end of the day, incredibly civil. When it’s all over, there’s this remarkable healing that takes place on all sides. At least so far there’s been a lot of grace. I don’t know whether that will apply to this election. I wonder if this is a pivotal moment where grace goes out the window in U.S. politics.

Zoe Daniel (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): The shiver moment so far was in New York, when Hillary Clinton acknowledged she was the presumptive nominee. As a woman, whatever your political persuasion, that was a big moment. I had that moment of thinking, “Wow, when I became a journalist 20-odd years ago, I did not expect to be standing here, meters from this woman who may well take the presidency.”

Matthias Kolb (Süddeutsche Zeitung): I find the whole Bernie phenomenon inspiring and pretty surprising. I was in Iowa at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in October—that was the first time I realized that there were thousands of college students who were really behind Bernie. They wanted to make their voice heard and talk about issues that Europeans care about: climate change, free education, more economic and social justice.

Joyce Karam (Al-Hayat): Covering Arab American involvement in the race is heartening—seeing Muslims fighting hard in this race for their own lives, for their own future. It’s different this year. It’s not just about the White House.

What’s one thing you’ve noticed about the election that you feel many Americans miss?

Chidanand Rajghatta (Times of India): I understand how the blue-collar American male feels. I may not agree with it, but I understand that feeling of alienation and frustration and nativism. It’s present in every country—this is not exclusive to the United States. Russians [have gone] through a nativist phase, Italians, French, and even in India. It depends on the strength of the country whether they come out of it. Some countries succumb, temporarily at least, to those passions, some don’t. And we’ll know what has happened in the U.S. in November.

Zoe Daniel (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): The approach of the American media, particularly the broadcast media, is very different [than] that of the media in Australia when covering politics. Australian media, particularly public media, tends to do a lot of policy-related interviews and features, whereas up to this point, I guess because of the primaries and caucuses, [the U.S. media has been focused on the] horse race. It’s just [been] about who’s polling best and who’s got the most delegates and who are the candidates going to be, rather than [what they’re] going to do if they become president.

Matthias Kolb (Süddeutsche Zeitung): People agree on more things than they don’t—the country is not as divided as it sometimes seems. People care about their country, they want it to be safe, they want kids to get a good education, they don’t want to see people in poverty. They might disagree about the solutions, but sometimes they don’t even accept or know that they share similar goals.

Joyce Karam (Al-Hayat): The foreign-policy debate is where a lot is missed—where Muslims are stereotyped, where conflict in the Middle East is seen through binary terms. [My] overall message is we’re not that different—the U.S., Arabs, all of this. It’s human emotions. It’s campaign strategies. It’s winning, I guess.